HC Deb 15 November 1974 vol 881 cc755-62
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about teachers' pay.

I should inform the House that following a meeting of the Houghton Committee yesterday morning the Secretary of State for Education and Science and I last night received further information from Lord Houghton about the progress of the committee which is reviewing the pay of teachers in England, Wales and Scotland. Lord Houghton told us that he confidently hopes to complete the report before Christmas. Moreover, the committee thinks it will have determined the broad basis of its recommendations by about the beginning of December and expects at that stage to be able to suggest a flat-rate sum, which would not conflict with its conclusions, which could he paid to teachers by the end of December or early thereafter, depending on local arrangements.

I am sure that Members of the House, the employing authorities and members of the teaching profession throughout the country will be interested to have this further information about the committee's progress. So far as Scotland is concerned, it means that as soon as I receive at the beginning of December from Lord Houghton the figure which he has in mind, I shall make it available to the Scottish Teachers' Salaries Committee for its consideration. If the Salaries Committee agrees that such a payment should be made to teachers, education authorities will be authorised to make these payments and, I am sure, will be anxious, if at all possible, to include them in the December salary payments.

This will, of course, be a payment to account since the Salaries Committee at a later stage will have to consider the whole range of the recommendations of the full report when it is received.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are grateful to him for making the statement this morning, which follows unprecedented disruption in Scottish schools—disruption resulting in all the schools except two in my constituency being closed for three days this week? Is he further aware that, although it is not much of an advance, in a joint statement made at a meeting of the EIS on Tuesday he gave an assurance that every endeavour would be made to pay an interim award to Scottish teachers in the December pay cheque? Has he received any indication whether his statement is likely to be acceptable to the teachers? If a meeting is not possible today because of the right hon. Gentleman having to make the statement this morning, will he hold an urgent meeting with the teachers to find what payment can be made?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say what is his attitude to some authorities, like Stirlingshire, which we understand are considering making an interim payment which they believe is within the law?

Thirdly, can the Secretary of State say, since it is generally believed that the Houghton Committee will recommend a substantial award back-dated to May, why he has not been in a position to make the statement earlier when it might have had a guarantee of securing better relations with teachers? Coming at this stage after weeks of militancy, it looks like a further triumph for militancy.

Fourthly, what steps does the right hon. Gentleman now intend to take to improve relations in Scottish education which, I hope he will agree, have sunk to an all-time low?

Fifthly and finally, does the Secretary of State agree that underlying the situation is a very severe problem which has affected education and career prospects of children throughout Scotland, and that is the right hon. Gentleman's demonstration of unreasonableness, inflexibility and, at times, pigheadedness? Will he not agree that he would best serve Scotland and Scottish education if he resigned forthwith and let somebody replace him who could restore good relations in Scottish education of which, up to now, we have all been very proud?

Mr. Ross

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) made the kind of approach to this statement which was expected of him.

Mr. William Hamilton

What a brat!

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman is known in Scotland as the "yo-yo Minister". He knows more about resigning and going back than anybody else. Nobody deplores more than I what has happened in Scottish education in recent weeks. I sincerely hope that what I have said this morning will enable teachers to be assured of the Government's bona fides. I gave a pledge that we were in favour in principle of payment on account and recently I said that I would make a statement as soon as possible. I regret that the statement had to be made on a Friday, but that was determined by the timing of the matter.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned disruption in Scottish schools. He will remember that there was considerable disruption when he was a junior Minister. On his point about local authorities making payments, I must tell him that any increase in remuneration for teachers has to be authorised by the Secretary of State and can proceed only on the basis of a recommendation from the Scottish Teachers' Salaries Committee.

When the hon. Gentleman asks why a statement could not have been made earlier, he should appreciate that it was the Labour Government who accepted that the teachers had a case as against others. We set up the Houghton Committee and we also said that what came out of that committee would be paid back to the date of the announcement on 24th May.

As for improving relations, the Labour Government will do everything they can to this end but we must get co-operation. The hon. Gentleman heard the exchanges on the previous Private Notice Question and he should compare his attitude with what happened during that exchange.

On the matter of handling the payment, we are prepared to meet the claims of the teachers about payment next month. We now know that the Houghton Committee will report before Christmas. We are carrying out the pledge that there shall be something in Scottish teachers' pay packets before the end of December.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend repeat his assurance that the teachers right across the board will get a lump sum before Christmas, since in view of the holiday period the time that remains will be short and the problem will be that much more difficult? Will he express an opinion as to whether he thinks this step will end the disruption in the schools since the situation is causing a great deal of concern to parents and, I hope, to everybody in this House? Will he dismiss with the contempt it deserves the irresponsibility and sheer effrontery of the squalid little brat the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor)?

Mr. Ross

My answer to my hon. Friend's first point is "Yes". I think that we shall obtain full co-operation from the local education authorities. My information is that, if they know the sum by a particular time, they will be able to make the necessary arrangements to have the money in the pay packet. We cannot be absolutely certain, but I think we are as sure as possible.

As regards disruption, I sincerely hope that we can get back to a normal education pattern in Scotland. The teaching profession, of which I am a member, has a reputation probably better than that in any other country for dedication to education and the well-being of the children. I want us to recover that reputation as quickly as possible and to put these matters behind us.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Secretary of State aware that we are grateful for the information he has given the House? Is lie also aware that we are grateful to Lord Houghton for having suggested an interim figure pending a final award? Is he satisfied that at this late stage local authorities will have the necessary machinery and liquidity to make these arrangements?

Secondly, without prejudging the outcome of the Houghton recommendations for the whole of the United Kingdom, since a figure of 30 per cent. has been mentioned—and without prejudice to that figure—does he agree that for good reason this will present strains on the already strained local government finances? So that we can see that the statement is implemented, is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to talk to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and others to see how the cash problem will be solved for local authorities, otherwise it could be an award without the cash to back it? Finally, may we be told whether the statement applies also to England and Wales?

Mr. Ross

On the last point, the answer is "Yes". I do not know whether arrangements can be made as speedily in England, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is answering today a Written Question on this subject.

On the question of finance for the interim payment, I do not see any difficulty. The longer-term question of finance is a matter for the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and has not been overlooked.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed the statement and I join with him in expressing our appreciation of the response of the Houghton Committee and Lord Houghton.

Mr. Gray

The Secretary of State must accept that the profession considers that his insensitivity to their problems has largely led to the situation that exists today. Will he give an assurance that from now on he will keep the closest possible relations with the representatives of the EIS so that the many teachers in Scotland who deplore strike action will not have to continue the action which they are taking at present?

Mr. Ross

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about my insensitivity. I made a statement on 30th October, and if the hon. Gentleman had been here on that occasion he would have appreciated that I had accepted the principle. What we have been arguing about is the timing.

I have fairly close contact with the EIS, and always have had. I assure the hon. Gentleman that not only the EIS but other teacher organisations too will have my attention.

Mr. Christopher Price

May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that there is close co-ordination with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science on this matter? If it should happen that the vast majority of Scottish teachers get this increase in their pay packets while a substantial number of English and Welsh local authorities fail to get the increase into the pay packets of their teachers, the situation in London, for example, could be as serious as it is at present in Scotland. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that co-ordination proceeds at every level?

Mr. Ross

I think my hon. Friend will appreciate that pay structures in Scotland are different from those in England and Wales, and that we have different committees to deal with this matter. On the matter of co-ordination, my statement applies to both sections and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science will take note of my hon. Friend's request.

Mr. Watt

Is it not running contrary to the traditions of this House that a statement such as this on Scottish affairs is made on a Friday? If this practice is to become commonplace, may Scottish Members please be told about it?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is rapidly earning for himself the epitaph of "too little and too late" and that if the kind of statement he has made today had been made about three weeks ago he would have avoided all the militancy and upset that has been experienced in Scottish education during the past few weeks, and he would have saved Scottish children from being deprived of their education during that period?

Mr. Ross

I wish that the hon. Gentleman had dedicated the few moments that lie has taken out of our time this morning to joining us in trying to end the dispute rather than in putting up cock-shies that will be fastened on to in order to continue the dispute.

Friday has always been a parliamentary day, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would want to be called a part-time patriot. It was important for the statement to be made as early as possible. Hon. Members are the first to criticise if a statement is made outside the House, and those who are interested should be here on a Friday to hear any statements that have to be made.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend accept from an Englishman that we appreciate the attempts he is making to resolve this dispute? Does he agree that the problems of the teaching profession, and of similar professions which have been in dispute, arise to some extent from the attempt to resolve some of the difficulties that they have run into in the past because of the incomes policy—phases one, two and three in particular—that kept their wages down and bottled them up? What we are now seeing is, we hope, one of the last series of explosions arising from the wicked incomes policy of the previous administration.

Mr. Ross

I have no doubt that over the past few years frustration has built up because of the statutory incomes policy and that this is a cause of the present situation.

Mr. Galbraith

I do not wish to press for a settlement that would in any way be inflationary, but can the right hon. Gentleman explain why there should not be a payment now to take some account —[Interruption.] It is all right for Labour Members to laugh, but I want to know the answer to my question. Why cannot there be a payment now to take some account of rising costs?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the great feeling in Scotland among parents, and can he be sure that his inadequate proposals—which is what they are to my way of thinking—will solve the matter? A payment now would do the job.

Mr. Ross

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been. Part of the settlement from 1st April was that teachers in Scotland would get the advantage of any triggering of threshold payments because of a rise in the cost of living. I cannot answer for England and Wales, but in Scotland the threshold pay ment has been triggered on five occasions. Compared with the salary scale on 1st April, a teacher starting today would receive £167 a year more. That has already been taken into account.

Mr. Galbraith

What about the second part of my question? Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that this—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. I think that the Secretary of State for Scotland has answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith), may I ask the Secretary of State whether he agrees that the thing to do now is to restore harmony in schools and a good relationship between the teaching profession, himself and the employing authorities? What immediate plans does the right hon. Gentleman have to discuss the implications of his statement with the teachers' associations?

Mr. Ross

A meeting is scheduled for next week with the Scottish Teachers' Salaries Committee, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that committee consists of teachers' representatives on one side and the management on the other, and that included within the latter there are Government representatives.

Mr. Taylor

Does that mean that the right hon. Gentleman will not get in touch with the teachers' association today, even informally?

Mr. Ross

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the teachers' association and I will be in touch.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think the House has had a good run on this statement and that we should press on to the next business.